Speaking at a Fianna Fail-organised meeting on crime in Dundrum in south Dublin last Wednesday night, the State's former most senior operational Special Branch officer, Peter Maguire, warned that the closure of garda stations across the country and the withdrawal of community gardai are opening the way to the re-emergence of republican terrorism.
Former chief superintendent Maguire spent almost his entire career fighting the IRA, arresting most of its senior members and putting them in jail. After the Provisional IRA ceasefire he and his officers clamped down on the "dissidents" who were resuming the violence and carried out the Omagh bombing killing 31 people including near-term twins in August 1998. Before that bomb slipped through the net, Maguire's officers thwarted a series of major bomb attacks including an attempt to bomb the Grand National at Aintree some months earlier. The Special Branch mopped up the dissidents and imprisoned more than 60 of them during his service. As detective superintendent in charge of these operations, Maguire was held in esteem by his colleagues for his leadership. After promotion to chief superintendent and transfer to Santry garda station he completed his law studies and was called to the bar. He now works as a barrister since his retirement seven years ago.
Speaking at the public meeting at the Goat pub last Wednesday evening, Mr Maguire said the growth of the Provisional IRA had begun in rural Ireland where there was generational support for violent republicanism.
He said today as gardai were in retreat from rural areas with the closures of stations and with most gardai living outside the areas they serve in, the close relations with communities and intelligence-gathering that was used to counter the IRA was disappearing. He pointed to recent events in Northern Ireland in which bombs and missile launchers had been seized and said the "withdrawal of police services from around the country at the moment is very, very misguided".
Other serving and retired gardai, including those who were in the thick of the fight against the IRA, privately say the same. They too are warning that the withdrawal of policing is allowing the rebirth of serious republican terrorism, and just not the amateurish so-called "dissident" activity seen in recent years.
From the time the IRA campaign officially ended with the 1997 ceasefire, a great deal was written about the "decommissioning" of its arsenal. The Canadian army general John de Chastelain was put in charge of a committee that reportedly oversaw decommissioning. As it was claimed to have completed its work there were enthusiastic statements from both the Irish and British governments that a historic decommissioning of IRA weapons had taken place. There were said to have been major acts of weapons decommissioning monitored by Gen de Chastelain's observers.
That was taken as fact: the IRA had given up and carried out the destruction of its massive arsenal.
Gardai who had been closely involved in the war against the IRA, and their counterparts in the old Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch, took a different view. In their work against the IRA, these officers had infiltrated the terrorist group up to senior levels. Various and sometimes dubious methods were used to "turn" IRA members into informants. Some of these gardai and ex-RUC officers privately held the view that the IRA had sold Gen de Chastelain's committee a pup. They believed, based on intelligence sources they had nurtured over the years, that the material that the monitors had seen being destroyed consisted of weapons and equipment that were no longer of use to the IRA, in other words, rubbish. In the rush to welcome Sinn Fein into constitutional politics these warnings west unheaded. The RUC Special Branch was disbanded and gardai withdrawn from the Border.
The government press releases about the "decommissioning" process never contained any inventory of the weapons supposedly destroyed. It was said to be "substantial" and journalists were briefed off the record that it was decided to keep the details secret as part of the deal with the IRA.
Last Wednesday week, a Russian-manufactured rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher and missile was recovered during a police raid in west Belfast. This was one of the IRA weapons that was supposedly destroyed in the decommissioning process. The rocket was seized in a house close to Beechmount Avenue which was dubbed by locals "RPG Avenue" because it was the site of the first fatal attack using one of the missiles, in May 1991. RUC Sergeant Stephen Gillespie, aged 31, and married with two children, was killed instantly and two other policemen seriously injured when the missile hit their armoured vehicle.
Not far from Beechmount is the family home of the man who is believed to be the head of the re-formed Provisional IRA. He has a considerable republican pedigree.
In recent years this man and former Provisional IRA associates has been planning the relaunch of a new campaign. His re-entry into terrorism has stimulated other former Provisionals to rejoin and become active again. The group announced their formation last summer in statements to newspapers in Belfast. Little attention was paid to the statements at the time as there had been several such announcements before as the dissident elements formed and re-formed themselves into factions. There were two groups claiming the title "Continuity" IRA, at least another two claiming the "Real" IRA title and another calling itself Oglaigh na hEireann. The newly emerging group simply calls itself the IRA. It is taking over the disparate "dissident" elements.
Over the months since the IRA announcement gardai have observed, with considerable surprise, former Provisionals who had disappeared off their radar become active again. The reactivation of these figures stepped up significantly last September with the assassination of the Dublin "Real" IRA figure Alan Ryan.
Shortly before his murder, Ryan had been summoned to a meeting of the new IRA in Co Down. It was made clear to him that his "fund-raising" activities left much to be desired. The new IRA figures knew Ryan and his associates were pocketing far more money than they were sending north to fund the "war".
Ryan is believed to have responded positively. However, it was clear that members of his group were still intent on enriching themselves and not passing on the money they were extorting from drug dealers, believed to run into many hundreds of thousands of euros a year.
The return of the former Provisionals is said to have come as a surprise to gardai who first learned of their resurgence late last year. They identified three former Provisionals on the north side of Dublin who were taking over Ryan's operations, all of them previously thought to have been supporters of Sinn Fein and the peace process.
Another two men in the Tallaght and Ballyfermot areas of Dublin who are now active in re-organising and extending Ryan's extortion racket were also thought to have retired fully from terrorism.
One of the men had benefitted from the early release deal for IRA prisoners at the time of the ceasefire though he had served a large part of his sentence.
The re-emergence of these figures has brought back into play the serious intent and professionalism of the Provisional IRA. One of Ryan's associates who was suspected of pocketing money from the extortion rackets was abducted in January and put through a quasi-judicial hearing at which a witness was produced and gave evidence of giving money to the man which was not passed on to the organisation. Ryan's associate, who is from Belfast, was "convicted", taken to the western outskirts of Dublin and had his kneecap shot off. The sentence was carried out in accordance with the rules of the IRA, known as the Green Book, in which the sentence for stealing money from the organisation is severe punishment but not execution. He may lose his leg below the knee.
Ryan and his associates usually shot people without warning.
The new organisation is spreading outside Dublin. Concerns were raised in the past two months in Co Wicklow when the republican elements there also stepped up their activities, "buying" debt from drug dealers and engaging in violent threats. It is now
suspected this group was responsible for the murder of Philip O'Toole, 33, who disappeared after leaving his home in Arklow on January 7. His body was discovered on January 22 at Trooperstown Wood near Laragh.
It is believed the republican/criminal group, now under orders from the northern command, murdered O'Toole when he refused to pay over money from an armed robbery and threatened one of their members.
The Wicklow dissident element had close ties with Alan Ryan and is believed to be responsible for the robbery of an arms dealer in Ashford last September when 29 guns including high-powered hunting rifles with telescopic sights were stolen. Two of these guns were recovered in Dublin by gardai who believed they were being delivered to Ryan who was to transport them across the Border. The rest of the weapons are unaccounted for.
Gardai in Wicklow have stepped up surveillance of the
group whose leaders are based in the Rathnew area and who now include a Dubliner who had close links to Alan Ryan and played a prominent role in his paramilitary-style funeral. This man is suspected of extorting a large sum of money from a businessman in the south county area after seriously assaulting him and threatening his life.
Speaking at the public forum, chaired by Fianna Fail's justice spokesman Niall Collins, Mr Maguire told the 100 or so people present of the dangers of a breakdown in effective policing at a time when military republicanism was again on the rise.
He said policing was "fundamentally and essentially a community effort, a joint effort between the community and the guards. It is predicated on the presence of the guards in the community and working with the community to achieve community ends".
He went on: "The withdrawal of the police from many many rural areas, and urban areas as well, means that ultimately the police will become a visitor to the community if something happens. They will no longer represent a presence in the community. They will no longer be in a position in the community to consolidate the kind of community support that is necessary for effective policing.
"Many in our time worked in all sorts of specialist units but we have learned over the years that the fundamental and most basic element of policing is police presence in the delivery of a frontline policing service.
"We have problems with economics but I have never known a situation where there are so many police stations closed. I have never known a situation where there are so many communities living in fear and apprehension. The very first duty of An Garda Siochana is to prevent crime. The detection of crime only comes into play when that first responsibility fails, and you prevent crime by a presence. The guards, by a presence in society, deter criminals from coming in and if the criminals come into it the guards collects sufficient intelligence and have the professional acumen to confront the criminal while he is in the area and be able to finger him very quickly. That is what community policing has been based on in every country.
"I read in a book there quite recently by James Bowyer Bell in relation to the IRA campaign from 1956 to 1962. The chief-of-staff of the IRA called off the campaign on the grounds that there was no community support for it.
"In 1969 the nation was on fire and we had 25 years of the worst terrorist campaign the country ever witnessed at any stage of British occupation. It took a long, long time to bring people to the stage where they were prepared to accept that violence could no longer achieve political aims and would alienate the community. Last night there was a car stopped in Derry and there were four bombs found. Those four bombs were, it said on the news, made in rural Ireland. I hope they weren't made in a community where the guards have been withdrawn in the last six months.
"We all know that the constitutional position on the island is not fully agreed. We all know that campaigns of violence have developed in the country in the past 30, 40 years and have their basic roots in rural Ireland. In 1969 when the Troubles started in Northern Ireland and spread throughout the island we had 6,000 guards in the force. In the next three years they had to increase that by 3,000 with the result that they had to ask people to join An Garda Siochana in order to deliver a police service. Last week there was an RPG rocket launcher, a highly volatile military weapon, found in the community in Belfast. There were three bombs found at the same time. There were four bombs found yesterday. This all took place in one week. There has not been one word in Dail Eireann about that.
"Things have not settled and the withdrawal of a policing service from operating in the community is very, very misguided. I understand the difficulties with finance and understand my former colleagues – the difficult financial situation they have to deal with. But I can tell them that the community are full-square behind you and will give you every support in every way.
"If it was left to the guards unhindered and unfettered to get on with the business, the guards have always delivered to this society and the guards will continue to deliver to this society as effectively as they have. None of us should forget that it was the Garda Siochana that substantially set up this State. It was the Garda Siochana that carried the rule of law and the authority of the Government into every rural station and every rural community in this country and particularly in Ballinamore in 1922.
"The Garda Siochana at all hours of the day have been in every rural community in this country. The Garda Siochana have been the only representative of State authority. Sadly today that is lost."